OKTIBBEHA COUNTY — The Oktibbeha County Lake Dam that came close to breaching and forcing a mass evacuation in January has had structural problems since it was built in 1965, and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality has been notifying county supervisors of this since 1985.
The emergency spillways are too small, the slopes on both sides of the levee are too steep and the box culvert under the County Lake Road bridge is cracking and coming apart, according to MDEQ and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inspection reports.
“Almost every communication that we’ve ever had with the board of supervisors since (1985) continued to have that same message,” said William McKercher, chief of the MDEQ dam safety division. “I think as with most things, it’s been an issue of funding (as to) why they didn’t do anything to address that. There’s always been discussion and plans on how to do it, but there’s just never been funding available.”
To solve the issue, the county would have to completely remove the existing dam, build a new one with larger valves to control the water level and build a new emergency spillway and a temporary detour road below the levee — an $8 million project.
District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard, who lives behind the levee, has been advocating for the search for funding for years to no avail — even suggesting at one recent supervisors meeting that the lake and its nearby residents, who are majority African-American, were “born on the wrong side of the tracks” to be a priority for some of the board, though he later said he didn’t think it was an issue of race.
Other supervisors say their sole reason for hesitating to fund the dam has been myriad other infrastructure projects in the county that require funding.
“It’s a funding issue,” District 1 Supervisor and Board President John Montgomery said. “You can wish all day long, but what it takes to make a project happen is dollars. No one is trying to slight anyone.”
What infrastructure money the county does have should be used to repair roads, he said.
Howard sees it differently.
“The safety of that many residents, actually the safety of one resident, I think, takes precedence over roads,” he said.
Past structural problems
January’s breach warning — which occurred when heavy rainfall put the dam in danger of flooding 17,500 acres of land — would have upgraded to an emergency and the recommendation to evacuate would have become a mandate if water started streaming out of the levee or if the mudslide in the seeping area of the levee reached the pavement on County Lake Road.
Before MDEQ formed, USACE conducted dam inspections in Mississippi and found in 1979 that the lake’s spillways, the structures that control the release of water from the dam, were built too small. The USACE letter at the time called the spillways “seriously inadequate” and the dam “unsafe in the non-emergency category.”
The county never provided the state or USACE with the plans for how the dam was built compared to how it was originally designed, as required when a new dam is built, McKercher said.
The current mudslide is in the same place and about as long as an earlier one that went unrepaired for two years, McKercher said. MDEQ notified the county in September 2002 of three slides, about 54, 25 and 120 feet. The agency found two more slides in January 2004, and the five slides spanned almost the full length of the back of the dam, McKercher said.
The slides were repaired later that year, but a February 2006 memo from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks said “the erosion on both sides of the levee at the spillway gradually continue(s) to get worse” and the same area on the east side needed repairs again. The county did not follow through with planned repairs at the time, the memo states.
Photos provided by McKercher to The Dispatch show a slide in 2009 in the same location as the current one.
Oktibbeha County Engineer Clyde Pritchard said in 2016 that the levee might need to be completely replaced after he found excessive slope failures on the west side of the levee. The Emergency Watershed Protection Program within the Natural Resources Conservation Service provided the $800,000 needed for repairs, but NRCS cannot fund an $8 million project, Pritchard said.
The slopes on both sides of the levee are required to be three times as long as they are high, but the slopes vary from 2.5 to 1.5 times the horizontal distance, Pritchard said. The slopes were both at a 2:1 ratio in the 2016 MDEQ inspection report. A flatter slope provides more stability and guards against mudslides when the soil on the slope is saturated with water.
Additionally, the spillway underneath the bridge over the levee is not only too small but also has “severe cracks” in it and is being held together with steel beams, Pritchard said.
“If we were to go out tomorrow and just repair the slide, we’d still be under a mandate from MDEQ to satisfy all those (other) requirements,” Pritchard said.
If the owner of a dam does not comply with repeated requests to bring the dam into MDEQ compliance, the agency can push the county for compliance by bringing the issue to chancery court. Since Oktibbeha County repaired past slides and lowered the water level at MDEQ’s request in 2016, the agency never found it necessary to force further action from the county, McKercher said.
The ongoing funding debate
Supervisors voted 3-2 on Jan. 21 to potentially foot half the bill in order to increase the chances of receiving low-interest, long-term funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Howard has also suggested diverting $2.2 million intended for road projects from the Office of State Aid Road Construction within the Mississippi Department of Transportation. The office allocates road and bridge repair funding to every county in the state every four years.
District 4 Supervisor Bricklee Miller does not support using state aid road money for the dam if it means the roads in her district will not get the repairs they need for four years.
“If this is a safety issue, I support it 100 percent,” Miller said. “If we can get all the funding from federal and state departments, I support it 100 percent. If we have to raise taxes (to generate) $4 million to $5 million, or if it means only doing one project in four years, then I definitely have concerns about that.”
Miller and Montgomery were the two dissenting votes on Jan. 21, saying they’re hesitant to dedicate $4 million in taxpayer dollars without public input and with other multimillion-dollar projects on the horizon.
“We do the best we can, but I can only imagine how far behind we’d be in four years if we couldn’t use that money on our major thoroughfares,” Montgomery said.
Howard said he believes the county can pull together the funding for the lake without resorting to bonds, which the public would have to vote to approve, or a tax increase.
Part of the lake is leased by former Mississippi State basketball coach Rick Stansbury, who lives in Kentucky. District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer suggested the county should end the lease and find a way to collect income on the recreational use of the lake, which used to be a popular location for water sports and social gatherings. That money could be used to pay off bonds for the project, he said.
The county has not received any funds from the newly-implemented state lottery, but it did receive $104,000 in internet sales tax revenue in January. That money can be bonded for the repair and maintenance of water infrastructure, said Jon McCormick, an accountant with the state auditor’s office. Both Howard and Montgomery said those and all other potential funding sources are worth considering.
“At this particular point, we’ve got all the options on the table,” Howard said. “We’re still gathering information with all the different scenarios that could possibly happen out there.”
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